Hostage videos offer trove of hidden clues for trained analysts

At first glance, a hostage video released on Christmas Day showing an American kidnapped in Pakistan by Al Qaeda more than two years ago offers few clues to his whereabouts. But to experts who know what to look for, the 13-minute recording is full of information that could potentially help locate Warren Weinstein.

Grammar, clothing, timing, production value, background noise and even lighting can all offer valuable information that could help government agents pinpoint the 72-year-old employee of a USAID contractor. And no matter what steps captors may take to guard information, it's virtually impossible for hostage-takers to not give away clues when releasing such tapes.

“It becomes an analytic challenge to determine when and where that video was taken," said Fred Burton, a former federal counterterrorism agent and vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm. "You will now have a tremendous amount of resources and assets behind the scenes doing a lot of work on this case. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on this process.”


The video depicts Weinstein expressing his anxiety that he's been "abandoned" by his country in the time since Aug. 20, 2011, when he was snatched from his home in Lahore. Those who know him say it's apparent in his gaunt and ashen appearance that his health has deteriorated.

More On This...

“And now, when I need my government, it seems that I have been totally abandoned and forgotten,” Weinstein says, apparently reading from a script. “I again appeal to you … to negotiate my release.”

A dark wool cap and a track suit worn by Weinstein could indicate he's being held in a colder climate, or possibly underground, Burton said.

"In my past debriefings of hostages, many are kept in basements, under barns, or in modified jail cells," Burton wrote on a blog posting about the forensic value of hostage videos.

Charles Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation, agreed the cap could point to a cold climate, perhaps somewhere in Pakistan's rugged mountains. But he also hinted it could indicate something more sinister.

“He has a sickly look about his face and he has a deliberately slow delivery,” Stimson said. “And maybe he has lost a lot of hair or maybe he’s been beaten about the head — you don’t know. But I don’t think the hat is on by accident, that’s all I can say.”

Weinstein is also missing a front tooth and has a long gray beard, perhaps to conceal his Western identity if he was recently transported to a new location prior to the recording.

Although the tape was undated, prompting Weinstein's family in Rockville, Md., to demand proof from the abductors that Weinstein is, in fact, still alive, the captive appeals to both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who was sworn into office in February. And the relatively high production value of the video and grammatically-sound script, particularly when compared to previous Al Qaeda hostage tapes, suggests that someone Western-educated was involved, experts agreed.

“You can see his eyes ever so slightly scroll across the language,” Stimson told “So whether he wrote it, which I highly doubt, or someone else wrote, it was a very well-produced textual script. It’s in English and was written in a very sophisticated way. Sometimes hostage video statements are clearly written by a foreigner, but this was very well done.”

Government forensic experts are likely already analyzing every aspect of the video, including Weinstein’s diction and pace to compare to his known speaking patterns. The video will also be deconstructed digitally with enhanced equipment to pick up background noises and even ambient lighting that may be helpful to determining Weinstein’s location.

Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said Weinstein’s captors appear to have gone out of their way to show he’s being treated fairly.

“The school of thought that produced this is, ‘We’re not treating him like he’s in Gitmo,’” Long told “He’s not living the high life, but he’s not being made to wear an orange jumpsuit or lost a hundred pounds.”

Long said Weinstein’s captivity appears to be in stark contrast to other former high-profile kidnapping victims, most notably William Francis Buckley, a U.S. Army officer and CIA station chief in Lebanon who was killed in 1985 after a year of captivity and torture by Hezbollah operatives. Video taken months after Buckley’s capture depicted a broken, largely incoherent man held in a cell not much larger than a coffin.

Burton said it’s not unusual for so-called “proof of life” videos to surface during the holiday season as part of a psychological cat-and-mouse game between hostage-takers and U.S. authorities.

“The timing of [the Weinstein video], I would say, is significant,” he said. “It’s probably timed for a specific purpose for the hostage-takers or those behind the scenes trying to get him out of captivity. The challenge here is the intelligence gaps. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We have some pieces, but we don’t have the whole puzzle.”

Stimson noted that the while Weinstein clearly appears as a man in distress, the mental toll of his captivity does not seem to be overwhelming.

“The language that they had him read would lead the casual observer to believe that they’re willing to negotiate and that they’re reasonable, but they’re not,” he said. “This is the same group that, out of the mouth of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, bragged about beheading Daniel Pearl … Their goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate around the world.”

Weinstein’s relatives, unfortunately, are not alone in their suffering. The families of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl know the pain of having a loved one held against their will by masked militants. Both Levinson, who disappeared on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and Bergdahl — America’s only remaining prisoner of war in the conflict with Afghanistan — have appeared in videos disseminated by their captors. The Taliban proposed a deal in June to free Bergdahl, 27, in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guatanamo Bay, but were rebuffed by the Obama administration because of a longstanding U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

And while the three cases will be treated by U.S. authorities as standalone incidents, State Department, FBI and CIA investigators will try to perform an analytic assessment to draw comparisons between the three videos at a baseline level, Burton said.

“Anything you can get along these lines is a positive development,” Burton told of culling new clues from the videos. “Anytime you get one of these as an agent, this reinvigorates the case. Even headquarters becomes interested. It causes a trickle down effect for the agents working the cases.”